The old saying about one’s eyes being bigger than the stomach can apply to more than Thanksgiving dinner. It can also pertain to building renovation and remodeling projects.

The two Virginias are fortunate to have an abundant array of historic houses and other structures. Many were built during the region’s coal boom era, while others sprung up before and after those noted decades of prosperity.

While many of these buildings have been maintained through the years, or lovingly restored by passionate individuals and community-minded groups, others have not been so fortunate.

In Tazewell County, residents have witnessed diverse outcomes in the tale of two historic structures in recent years. Through the hard work and efforts of dedicated volunteers, the Sanders House in Bluefield, Va., was immaculately restored to its former glory. It is now open for tours and a tourist information center has been integrated into the building’s grounds.

Down the road in Pocahontas, Va., a different story played out with the community’s landmark company store. While its historic significance was well-noted and appreciated by many, time, work and, most importantly, money was needed to revive the timeworn structure. Sadly, just as efforts were getting underway by Historic Pocahontas Inc. to save the store disaster struck — the building collapsed, destroying a significant piece of the town’s history.

Last week in Bluefield it was a case of deja vu.

In the pre-dawn hours Monday morning a portion of the Old People’s Bank Building collapsed, scattering rubble across Bland Street and leaving a gaping chasm in the center of the vintage structure.

On the day of the collapse, Mayor Linda Whalen said she was “heartsick.” Her feelings were shared by many throughout Bluefield and those in the surrounding areas.

Constructed of brownstone and featuring its signature turret looming above Princeton Avenue, the building, built prior to 1895, was a favorite for many people in the region. Its distinctive architectural style and vintage presence commanded attention. It was, quite simply, a joy to the eyes.

For more than a year the city had been in the process of acquiring the building from the Redeeming Life Christian Center Church, which had owned it for about seven years. Bluefield officials were aware of significant structural problems with the building, and knew it needed to be stabilized — quickly.

Late last year a deal was struck between the church and the city. The process to transfer ownership began and the city acquired a grant of more than $100,000 to shore up the structure.

But time can be a cruel enemy. Despite the work and good intentions of many individuals, the tired structure could wait no longer.

And Monday it gave up the fight.


Renovating an old structure can be an exciting, dramatic and life-changing event. I know, because I’m currently living the nightmare ... I mean dream.

Last year the husband and I moved into my family’s “homeplace” following the death of my mother. The giant four-story home — approaching its 100th birthday — has been in my family for about half a century. Although located about 15 miles from Bluefield, the house was constructed by some of the Italian stone masons who did much of the stone work in the city, according to family history. Built of brick, the house is solid as a rock, as the rectangular blocks were used not only on the exterior but to also build the interior walls.

It’s not a fancy house, I tell folks, but it’s unique, functional and rich in family history. And it’s old — one of the characteristics I hold most dear.

As the husband and I prepared to move in, my dreams were huge. Although my parents had kept the home extremely well-maintained, I wanted to restore it to its vintage roots.

My eyes were starry. My mind naive.

Among my immediate plans: Pulling up the carpet in two rooms, two hallways and one stairway and refinishing the original hardwood underneath; remodeling the master bedroom and primary guest bedroom; painting 80 percent of the second and third floors to colors more true to the house’s age; remodeling the den — an addition added to the house in 1990; painting the outside trim, in three colors, on all four floors, including the attic dormer; and turning one of the spare rooms into a library.

We planned to do most, if not all, of the work ourselves while working our full-time jobs. I believed it could be accomplished in about a year or year and a half tops. My husband told me I was crazy. He was right.

Although we have moved forward on our projects, we are nowhere near completing my first-year goals. Among the lessons I’ve learned along the way: Wear a hat when painting the underside of steps unless you want green hair; look carefully when your husband, standing on a third-floor roof painting, asks if there’s a bee’s nest around the corner (oops!); make sure your loyal black mastiff is not sleeping at your feet when sanding large amounts of plaster, (stop project, bathe 150-pound, now-white dog, return to fixing walls); and, most importantly, be prepared for unexpected problems to pop up constantly when working on an older structure.

I could now write a book on remodeling horror stories — not to dissuade enthusiastic would-be renovators, but to let others know the reality of fixing up an older structure requires fortitude, stamina and an ongoing spirit of optimism in the face of adversity.


Speaking with various officials and individuals last week while covering the collapse of the Old People’s Bank Building, I learned many people had dreams for the structure.

Bishop Frederick Brown, pastor of the church, said they had previously hoped to use part of the building as a youth facility and the upstairs as a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center. Mayor Linda Whalen spoke of a plan to utilize the building as an overlook for the railroad yard.

These goals were noble and inspirational. But, sadly, dreams and reality don’t always mix. We do not yet know if the building can be salvaged, but chances appear to be slim. Prior to the collapse time had already taken its toll.

Last week the building’s heart gave out. And, regrettably, a broken heart can be among the most difficult problems to mend.

Samantha Perry is managing editor of the Daily Telegraph.

Contact her at

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